Philip Hendrix, 130 TESS
What has my experience been as a person of color in Thailand? It definitely has had its frustrating moments, which Kara’s recent article and others have done a great job of bringing to life. I sometimes get the, “What? I thought you were from Africa!” comments, actually usually as a joke from people I already know. The most original comments might be the comparisons to the Mani people, an ethnic minority in southern Thailand with a dark complexion and curly hair, many of whom live nomadically in the area’s rainforests. But, as I reflect on my experience this first year, I would say the effect on me has been more therapeutic than anything else.
Back in the States, stress was a big part of my life, and much of that had to do with work. I recently read a fantastic article on the ‘burnout’ faced by a lot of young Americans, and resonated with the author’s realization that, “I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time.” I also carried that mindset with me to Thailand. I remember thinking during integration period that I really ought to be integrating 24/7, and that the remaining time should be spent on paperwork, moving in, learning to be self-sufficient, getting in shape, learning more Thai, blogging, and of course getting ready to teach little children for the first time ever. Even then, I knew I couldn’t do it all, but, somehow, I couldn’t come to terms with this, and the thought that I should be doing more was distancing me from my lived experience. As the author explains, “It takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks.” Seeing the world through the lens of a to-do list meant that all I often noticed were the empty boxes and the check marks, not the beauty, the humor, or the humans right in front of me. Looking back at journal entries now, many of them don’t mention a thing about what even happened that day, only that I didn’t get enough done, and that I must do better tomorrow.
The feeling of pressure and not-doing-enough-ness has always been informed by my background. As a person of color with educational and professional opportunities that not everyone gets (like being here in Thailand), I have always accepted it as my responsibility to make the most of it, and to try to be the best example I could be for the younger ones both in my family and beyond. Having grown up in predominantly white communities, I was also conscious of the role I played in influencing my peers’ understanding people of color. Beyond putting extra weight on my efforts in the classroom, this meant trying to be constantly cheerful and agreeable. I also learned that the stakes were high and there was little to fall back on. And so, ‘you should be working’ turned into ‘you had better be working, and you had better do it with a smile on your face.’ And somewhere along the way, the idea of taking my foot off the gas became synonymous with underachieving, and that was unacceptable.
My time here in Thailand isn’t helping me in the way I thought it might. I thought I’d have a shorter to-do list here – I don’t. I thought I’d feel less pressure – turns out there’s no escaping it. What’s changing, slowly, is the way I react to situations, and how I treat myself. Much of this has been by necessity. So much goes not according to plan here, and if I let the little things get to me like I used to, then I would be angry a lot of the time, and the kids and my community don’t deserve that. I also have to come to terms with fear daily: of the bees that live in my bathroom, of the dogs that live at my school, and of the unpredictability of a room full of kids. I have to be comfortable constantly trying new things, and forgiving myself when they don’t go as expected. I have to fight through social anxiety and be comfortable sitting silently next to people for extended periods of time. This is hard every day, but it has gotten easier over time. I am also surrounded by role models who are teaching me not to bite when these emotions pull at me.
There’s my host mom and her catchphrase, “Kriat Tammai (why stress)?” There’s Teacher Uan on the soccer field, constantly reminding me that, here, we play for fun. There’s my co-teacher – once, after a tough lesson, I apologized for losing my cool and told her I just really wanted things to change in that class. She responded, without a hint of condescension, “Change yourself?” And then there are the rest of my co-teachers, who work hard but rarely seem to be in a rush. They have time for each other; their humor is irrepressible; they even think of each other when they go shopping! They are helping me learn that I don’t have to take my foot off the gas in order to breathe. I can carry the same burdens and do the same tasks, but strip them of their angst and urgency. When I’m in the right frame of mind now, my work and my life become far more enjoyable, and far more memorable, than they used to typically be. So, thank you, year 1, for taking me a couple steps closer to peace of mind. It’s been tough, but it’s been worth it.